NONVIOLENCE IN COLOMBIA
A Growing Anti-Militarist Movement Demands Right to "Active Neutrality" in
by Bill Weinberg
Maria Brigida Gonzalez, with her long gray-streaked braids and nurturing
smile, comes across as the kindly grandmother that she is, even if she is
deft with a machete, and wears knee-high rubber boots to negotiate muddy
jungle trails. Her village, San Jose de Apartado, resembles many such
campesino communities carved out of the jungle throughout Latin America,
with pigs, chickens and turkeys rummaging freely in the lanes. And, like
all too many, it has recently been the scene of much hideous violence. But
Maria Brigida and her village are on the frontlines of a grassroots
citizen initiative to find a peaceful settlement -- or at least advance the
right to neutrality -- in the escalating and chaotic civil war that is
tearing apart Colombia.
"Our neutrality means we will not participate with any armed actors," says
Maria Brigida, in her understated manner. "But we will denounce human
rights abuses by any side." A hand-painted sign on road outside the
entrance to the village reads: "I am a member of the Peace Community of
San Jose de Apartado. I am freely committed to the search for a peaceful
and negotiated settlement to the conflicts that exist in the country, and
to work for peace within the community."
Maria Brigida is one of eight members of San Jose's community council
(including three women), who have been elected every year since 1997, when
the community declared its neutrality in the war which had claimed many
local lives. Every community resident over 12 can vote in the council
elections. By consensus, the community's young men do not serve in the
army, despite official conscription. By not serving, they lose the right
to work and education, but in a remote and largely self-sufficient
campesino community, this makes little difference. "If we had a legitimate
army, perhaps they would serve," says Maria Brigida. "But not with this
army that attacks the civil population and assassinates children."
Over 100 have been killed in San Jose since the first massacre there in
1996. The various community projects are named for its local martyrs. The
community center is named for Anibal Jimenez, who was among six killed in
a February 1999 massacre by by right-wing paramilitary troops. The maize
granary is named for Francisco Tabarquino, killed by "paras" in 1997 on
road to Apartado, the municipal seat. The carpentry workshop is named for
Ramiro Correa, killed by leftist guerillas in 1997 while working in the
fields. The pre-school, built with European foreign aid, is named for
Bartoleme Castano, a local resident who served on Apartado's municipal
council with the leftist Patriotic Union (UP), killed by par as in Apartado
town in 1996. He was 77 years old. A fountain outside the community center
is inscribed with the names of the martyrs, with the words, "To remember
the past is a commitment to the future."
Survival, Terror and Resistance in San Jose de Apartado
San Jose de Apartado lies in the low, tropical and deeply conflicted
region of Uraba, near the Caribbean gulf of the same name. The flatlands
along the coast host sprawling banana plantations, but San Jose lies along
the inland moun tains, where peasant settlers have be en eating into the
jungle for two generations -- many of them first displaced by political
violence in the highland regions to the south. The community was first
established in 1962 by settlers from Santa Fe, Antioquia department.
Apartado is also in Anti oquia, but Uraba -- which straddles Antioquia, Choco
and Cordoba departments -- has its own identity, in large part as a violently
San Jose is a corregimiento, or unincorporated township, made up of 32
veredas, or settlements, of whic h three -- San Jose, the principal one, and
outlying La Union and Arenas -- are integrated in the Peace Community. Lands
are titled to the corregimiento, and worked communally. As a relatively
recently-settled district, the San Jose corregimiento covers o ver sixty
percent of Apartado municipality's territory--by far biggest of Apartado's
four corregimientos. The residents grow maize, beans, rice and sugar cane
for their own consumption, as well as cacao and "primitivos," their own
local miniature banana v ariety, for sale to export companies. By community
agreement, they only use traditional seed varieties, and are trying to
phase out agro-chemicals. They make fertilizer from fermented soy and
yogurt with ai d from a church-linked development group. Their e cological
ethic is a mandate of survival in the fragile rainforest environment. Says
Maria Brigida: "The mountains are the source of our water. If we leave
them alone, we will have abundant water. If we cu t the trees there, the
rivers will go dry. If we cut one tree, we plant two. We don't want this
good land to become a desert."
It was also the mandates of survival on the jungle frontier that drew San
Jose into the war. The village receives littl e support from the municipal
government. It is on the power grid, but the unpaved and gully-ridden road
to the municipal center is maintained by the community residents
themselves in regular mingas, or work parties. It was the demand for basic
services that led to San Jose becoming a stronghold of the left-wing UP
party -- which held the Apartado municipal government from the mid-1980s to
1996. Things began to improve in San Jose in those years, and the annual
March avocado festival actually brought some Colombian tourists to the
But the UP w as founded by former members of the Colombian Revolutionary
Armed Forces (FARC), the country's largest guerilla group -- and is accused,
especially by the Colombian right, of still being li nked to the leftist
rebels. The emergence of UP loyalties in Apartado brought a harsh backlash
from the burgeoning right-wing paramilitary network, which established a
firm grip over Uraba in the 1990s. UP candidates were assassinated. And
UP-loyalist zones such as San Jose were targeted for terror.
The first massacre was in September 1996, when paras entered the village
and killed four -- including a pregnant woman. "For the previous four
months," relates Wilson David, coordinator of the Peace Co mmunity council,
"some 200 army troops had been based in village. They demanded that local
families house them. Now it is clear they were gathering information."
The second massacre, in February 1997, fit the paras` established pattern.
Riflemen with military-style uniforms and the distinctive black-and-white
armbands of the United Colombian Self-Defense Forces (AUC) arrived at dawn
and ordered the inhabitants to gather. They had a list, and demanded 11
residents, including two women. The 11 were marched out of village with
their hands tied behind backs. They were later found dead on the road with
signs of torture.
Next month, on March 23, 1997, the Peace Community was declared by
community leaders in the veredas of San Jose, La Union and Arenas. They
acted with the support of Apartado`s Bishop Isaias Duarte (who would be
ki lled in Cali in 2002, allegedly by a FARC gunman). Five days later,
March 28, paras arrived in the outlying vereda of La Union. They killed
three, and told the residen ts they had five days to abandon the vereda.
Three thousand left La Union and Arenas, mostly to San Jose. Abandoned La
Union became a battle zone between FARC guerillas and AUC paras.
"We became targets for refusing to cooperate with any armed forces," says
Wilson. "There are 115 orphans in our community now. We have a grave
responsibility to them and our own future."
The paras -- in civilian clothes and armed with pistols, but sometimes
wearing the AUC armband -- established a roadblock on the road to Apartado
for nine months. Up to 50 were killed at the roadblock. Produce and money
were stolen. Wilson says collusion between the army and ostensibly
outlawed paras was blatant. "It is clear. The army protects the paras.
They pass the para roa dblocks and they don't interfere."
FARC retaliation, rather than defending the besieged communities, only
escalated the atmosphere of terror. In the 1996 Barrio Las Chinitas
massacre in Apartado town, 35 were killed -- apparently by the FARC--in a n
attack on a party being held by para loyalist-families. Nelson Campos
Nunez, Apartado's UP mayor, was accus ed of complicity in the attack.
Ironically, Uraba's fundamental power shift from the UP and FARC to the
AUC was related to the FARC's violent rivalry with another leftist
guerilla faction, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL). Wilson charges that
the EPL be gan to cooperate with the AUC in their campaign against the
FARC. In 1991, the EPL in Uraba officially laid down arms and became a
legal political party, Hope, Peace and Liberty -- still known by the Spanish
acronym EPL. Apartado's current EPL mayor Mario Agudelo is said to be
linked to the paras. Teodoro Diaz Lobo, the former EPL mayor, is now in
prison in Medellin on charges of links to armed para activity. Wilson
charges that the formerly leftist EPL "is now the political arm of the
The tentative progress of the 1980s was reversed in the '90s. Says San
Jose community leader Jesus Emilio Tuberquia: "The violent struggle
b etween left and right has paralyzed everything. The idea of both sides is
that if you aren't with one you are with the other. But we aren't with
Like the paras, the FARC retaliated against the Peace Community's
assertion of neutrality. In October 1997, community council member Ramiro
Correa and two others were killed by FARC guerillas at the outlying vereda
of Crista lina after telling them they would not cooperate with the rebels.
"But the greatest threat is from the state, acting with the paras," says
Three were killed in para incursions in San Jose in April 1999, and five
in February 2000. In July 2000, at La Union, where residents had recently
returned to their homes, six were killed by paras, including a community
co uncil member. In March 2001, paras entered San Jose, burned houses, and
threatened to leave a "ghost town."
A certain degree of security was won for the Peace Community when outside
observers arrived to monitor the situation and provide a disincentive to
attacks. Justicia y Paz, a church-linked Colombian organization, sent in
observers in 1997. They were followed by foreign observers from Pe ace
Brigades International and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who now
respectively maintain a presence at the veredas of San Jose and La Union.
A community radio micro-transmitter was also established, aiding vigilance
and coordination, especially with outlying veredas.
But violence in the corregimiento does continue. In June 2003, an army
battle w ith FARC guerrillas in a San Jose banana field just outside the
central vereda killed ten trees, and left a fence damaged. The UN High
Commissioner for Refu gees has a program in San Jose for residents
displaced from the outlying vereda of Mulatos by FARC-army fighting
earlier this year.
After a few days in the vereda of San Jose with a small delegation of
activists from the United States and Spain, the resi dents mounted us on
horses and mules for a two-hour trek up the trail to La Union. Plots o f
cacao and sugar cane were interspersed with cattle pasture and patches of
jungle as the trail climbed up towards the mountains, with rushing rivers
plunging through the green canyons that fell away on either side. Far from
the road, La Union gets few visitors, and the residents were happy to see
us. The vereda was considerably more primitive than San Jose, with no
electricity or running water. When we were brought up to a small
mule-driven communal sugar mill on a ridge overlooking the vereda, we
could see the Gulf of Uraba in the distance.
La Union's exiled residents started to return in 1998. La Union resident
Javier Sanchez remembers the grim year they spent ex iled in San Jose after
being forced to flee. "We couldn't go three minutes outside San Jose.
Otherwise--" he draws a finger across his neck. Since returning, the
residents have organized work groups to protect each other in the fields,
and Sanchez says the threat of para terror has actually brought them more
closely together. "Now the community has control here -- neither the
guerillas nor the paras."
While the school in San Jose vereda is run by the municipality, the little
school in La Union is run by a group of Franciscan sisters. One old
schoolhouse in the small compound of three stands empty and sacked.
Religious murals depicting images of Jesus and slogans about peace
contrast one wall pock-marked by bullet holes from a para attack in '95.
The residents say the paras shot up and ransacked the school, but didn't
kill anyone that time. La Union's central square also has a makeshift
memorial inscribed with the names of the vereda's martyrs.
Despite recent progress, the threat of violence is never far away. Late
that night, as we slept in the little cabins provided to us, an army
helicopter hovered directly over La Union -- low enough to wake residents,
and violating the community's edict against entry to armed actors.
Wilson David says that much of the inspiration for the Peace Community
came from the nearby community of Embera-Katio Indians, who asserted their
right to local control of their lands against all armed factions even
before indigenous autonomy was officially reco gnized by Colombia's 1991
constitutional reform, whi ch established a system of "resguardos," or
The Embera-Katio resguardo of Playas begins just across a rickety bridge
over the Apartado River from San Jose, and the Peace Community has
fraternal relations with the indigenous co mmunity. Maria Bigida leads us
over the bridge and along a jungle trail for a kilometer or so before we
arrive at a clearing with a cluster of traditional Embera thatch-roof
homes, called chozas. The resguardo extends into mountains of the Serrania
del Abibe, which forms the border with Cordoba department. The residents
lived in separate communities spread out over their lands until they came
together in the central village in response to fighting in the area in
1997. They were initially dependent on Red Cross aid during the
transition, when they had to abandon cultivated lands, but they have now
regained their self-sufficiency. The village of Playas is not on the
electrical grid, but solar panels provide some light and power. The women
still wear traditi onal garb.
When we arrive, the village leaders are away in Apartado town for a
regional indigenous meeting, but Maria Brigida's friend Rosa Angela Borja
greets us and cooks up some fried plantains and eggs. She explains
something of the Embera-Katio system of self-government, which officially
has local force of law under the 1991 constitution. Each of the three
Embera-Katio resguardos in Apartado--Playas, Palma and Coquera--has an
elected leader called the "ca bildo local," and a "cabildo mayor" is
charged with responsibility for all three. Rosa says that children can
vote from age two or three, "if they behave well." Men who serve in the
military lose their membership in the community, Rosa says. She cites the
"peligro" (danger) to the village if the guerillas perceive it as loyal to
But despite the constitutional right to local autonomy, the army does not
always respect the resguardo's declared intention to keep their land free
of all armed faction s. As we ate our lunch, a detachment of army troops
marched right through the heart of the village. Rosa says they were taking
advantage of the fact that the menfolk were away that day. "They know it
isn't correct," she says.
Medellin: Youth Network Resists Para Culture
The activists I visited San Jose with had come to Colombia for an
International Conference on Active Nonviolence and Resistance to War, held
August 11-16 in Medellin, capital of Antioquia department, hosted and
organized by a local yout h group. So after five days in the jungle
corregimiento, a trip in a chiva (collective mini-bus) along the dirt road
to Apartado, followed by an hour plane flight, brought us to the
provincial capital 5,000 feet high in the Andes. There we found ourselves
ensconced in the slightly faded swank of Medellin's 1940s-vintage Hotel
Nutibara -- a somewhat incongruous setting for an event overwhelmingly
attended by slightly unkempt activists wearing message t-shirts. The
conference brought together anti-militaris t and human rights activists
from all over Colombia -- most of whom were in their twenties, and some even
younger. Also in attendance were young draft resisters and their
supporters from Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, Guatemala and Spain, as well
three represe ntatives of the War Resisters International, the venerable
pacifist organization dating to the aftermath of World War I, from Europe
and the US.
The group that hosted the conference, the Red Juvenil, or Youth Network,
was founded in 1990 in Medellin's popular barrios "to promote youth
participation in political life," says the Red's Milena Meneses, a
political science student at the National University who also teaches
inmates about their human rights in Medellin's prisons. "We promote an
alternative you th culture to that of gangs and sicarios," or hired
assassins, she says. "We use theater and art to reach out to the city's
youth, and we are tied to the larger popular movement of the left in the
barrios." Many young members of the Red are former gang me mbers who found
new direction after experiencing a Red presentation in Medellin's schools.
Medellin's poor barrios are as much a part of Colombia's war as the
campesino communities of Uraba. Medellin's Zona Centro Oriental, where the
Red was foun ded, was site of the 1992 Villatina massacre of nine youths by
un-uniformed police in an act of what is locally known as "social
cleansing" against gangs and lumpen culture -- although it was never
determined that the unarmed victims were even gang members. The families
were eventually indemnified after the city government was forced to
concede complicity in the massacre.
October 2002 saw an army sweep code-named Operation Orion in Medellin's
Comuna 13 district, which had become a stronghold of a n urban guerilla
militia known as the Armed People`s Commandos, or CAP. Days of street
fighting left some 35 dead, and the district is still patrolled by army
troops, who scoot around the streets on motorcycles, M-16s slung across
their backs. In this and other outlying poor districts that climb the
steep hills overlooking the city center, the AUC's notorious Metro Bloc is
waging a quiet war of extermination against street gangs and urban
guerillas. The Red Juvenil is part of a network of community center s in
these viole nce-ravaged districts attempting to promote education,
self-help and human rights.
As if to exemplify the harsh realities the Red confronts every day, one
night during the conference, a police officer was shot dead right outside
the hotel, and one confer ence attendee was briefly detained on suspicion.
The Red also organizes support for Colombia's conscientious objectors to
the military draft. One year and eight months of military service is
obligatory from age of 18, and those who don't show up lose the ir right to
work or attend university. It is mostly campesinos and kids from poor
urban barrios who are sent to the war zones, as students who have been
accepted by a university are allowed to remain in their home regions for
their studies. Indians are ex cepted from the draft under the 1991
constitutional reform, and Jehova's Witnesses are also exempt. The Red was
among the groups that supported Colombia's first conscientious objector in
1996, Luis Gabriel Caldas, who des erted from the army and served sev en
months in a military prison in 1996.
Since the Peace Communities began emerging in 1997, the Red has promoted
"active neutrality in the war as a posture for the popular movements," as
Milena puts it. The Red h as hosted several national meetings in
Med ellin -- such as the December 1999 Youth at the Milennium conference and
concert, which ushered in the new century with mural-painting and other
community projects in the barrios. Every July 20, the Red protests
Medellin's Independence Day military parade, standing along the parade
route with signs bearing anti-militarist slogans, such as "Ningun ejercito
defenda la paz" (No army defends the peace).
The August conference was also attended by representati ves from several of
Colombia's Peace Communities. In addition to San Jose de Apartado, there
were representatives from La Balsita, also in Antioquia's Uraba region;
San Francisco de Asis and Caicedo municipalities in the Antioquia
highlands; Sur de Boliva r in Bolivar department; and the Afro-Colombian
co mmunities of Villarica, in Cauca department, and Jijuamiando and
Cacrica, in Choco. Representatives from Caicedo related how, after the
FARC had repeatedly robbed trucks bringing their coffee crop to mark et,
the community organized a citizen foot processi on to accompany the trucks,
carrying white banners -- signifying neutrality, not surrender. The tactic
worked, and the guerillas backed off. There were also representatives from
indigenous Paez communities in Cauca, and the independent peasant
organizations of Cimitarra Valley in the conflicted Medio Magdalena
region, which have likewise declared their neutrality.
One challenge for the Red has been the official embrace of the term
"non-violence" by Antioquia's government. With aid from the Martin Luther
King Center in Atlanta, GA, Antioquia's Governor Guillermo Gaviria Correa
encouraged local community assemblies in the department's 124
municipalities to discuss national problems, and promote a "road to
non-violence." He publicly embraced Caicedo's neut rality effort,
officially dubbing it "Antioquia's First Peace Municipality." In April
2002, FARC guerillas forcibly detained Gaviria and his peace advisor
Gilberto Echeverri Mejia, a former defen se minister, as the two were
accompanying church leaders and some 1,000 supporters on a cross-country
march from Medellin to Caicedo to promote the "non-violence" campaign.
Gaviria and Echeverri were abducted just three kilometers short of
Caicedo, some 70 kilometers northwest of Medellin. In May 2003, they were
a mong ten hostages killed by the FARC in reaction to an army rescue
attempt. Gaviria has become extremely popular in martyrdom, and
Antioquia's interim governor is carrying on the "non-violence" campaign.
But Gaviria was from the same Liberal Party as Col ombia's ultra-hardline
President Alvaro Uribe, and the Red Juvenil finds that the official
"non-violence" campaign has in some ways made their work more difficult.
Says the Red's Adriana Castano Roman, who recently completed law school:
"It puts us in a p aradoxical position. The communications media are in
their hands, and they are changing the popular perception of non-violence.
They certainly do not support the right of conscientious objection. And
it's especially easy to dismiss us because we are young."
The conference closed with an all-day concert in a Medellin park,
featuring local punk, metal, reggae, ska and rap outfits, many with
bitingly political lyrics and irreverent names like Bellavista Social
Club -- Bellavista being the name of Medellin's notoriously harsh prison. One
person was injured at the concert in the punk-skinhead violence that
frequently occasions Medellin youth culture events, reflecting the general
lef t-right political chasm. But the broken-rifle symbol of the War
Resisters Int ernational hung on the banner over the stage. As the event
ended well after midnight and Red volunteers started to clean up the
littered paper cups from the beer stand that cove red the park grounds,
Adriana breathes a sigh of relief. "The violence has been worse before."
Red Juvenil`s efforts are beginning to have an impact in terms of popular
consciousness in Medellin and Antioquia, according to Adriana, and
mainstream legitimization of the term "non-violence" has also allowed the
Red to assert a dissident alternative to the official campaign. "Now we
are acknowledged as having at least a minority position," she says. "Even
if they call us anarchists and utopians."